LOS ANGELES -- Luke Perry walks into the Four Seasons Hotel, picks up a Variety and an ashtray for the Marlboro Light he's already lit. He yawns languidly -- he's about 20 minutes late for the 7:30 breakfast he set up. In fact, as he rolls into a chair in the ultra-carpeted restaurant, he's a study in sensual languidness, stretching, almost animal-like, casually scratching an itch on the back of his neck with the round base of a long-stemmed glass --

Wait, you don't know who Luke Perry is?

Then you're not a teenager and you don't watch Fox TV's newest hit, "Beverly Hills, 90210," and even then you don't have much of an excuse since Perry and the show's two other stars, Shannen Doherty and Jason Priestley, have been smiling beatifically from the covers of People and Entertainment Weekly and the sets of various television talk shows. The hourlong drama on Thursday nights about life at West Beverly High (a fictional version of the famous Beverly Hills High), from Aaron Spelling's production company, has done for angst-ridden teenagers what "thirtysomething" did for angst-ridden yuppies -- it takes them seriously. But it's Perry who's upped the voltage on the show and his career, playing the brooding but sensitive good bad boy, Dylan McKay.

"First of all, I don't have a career," Perry says in his soft, husky voice, ever sober about the realities of a business that launches you one minute only to watch you crash and burn the next. "I have a string of jobs that I've been fortunate enough to acquire."

The waiter comes over with menus and a confession. "You being here made me break a promise," he says to Perry. "We've got a lady who comes in here, three or four times a week -- she's got four daughters. Every time she's here she asks me if you've been here. 'Promise me if he comes in, you'll call us.' She's literally going to go get them and whisk them over. ... But I can't do that to you."

"Occupational hazard," Perry says after ordering eggs over easy, potatoes and dry wheat toast. Not that he's above having fun with all this.

"I was here once," he says of the hotel. "I sat with Peter Coyote and had drinks and talked. There were a couple of girls there. We threw peanuts at them -- they were catching, we were throwing."

This groggy morning, he's come in character, or maybe he is his character. He's all devil-may-care attitude and bad-boy flirt. If you're thirtysomething he's charming and fun. If you're 15, he drives you nuts. You follow him home from Burger King. You sit in the studio audience of the local morning talk show "AM Los Angeles" and scream through his entire appearance.

"First of all it's way too early in the morning for that," he says of the early-morning talk show frenzy and perhaps of the need to discuss it as well. "And second of all, I'm simultaneously flattered and embarrassed."

That talk show was nothing compared to what happened in a south Florida mall when 10,000 girls stampeded over each other to meet him at an autograph signing. Nine people were treated at emergency rooms. Perry had to be hustled away before he could pen his name once.

"I certainly was concerned about the people who were injured," says Perry, who telephoned all but one of them afterward. "The attention from the fans is great. It's nice to know they like your show." But he can't explain their volatile reaction.

"I don't know why it happened," he says. "I don't even sing."

"Just in general, in terms of teen idolhood, there's always a need to fill that role," says the show's executive producer, Charles Rosin. "Three years ago we would have been talking about New Kids on the Block."

The popularity of "90210" has had its young stars on a campaign-like publicity trail, especially during the actors' brief hiatus. In addition to autograph signings and talk show appearances, there are product tie-ins like one involving a company that wants to give a scholarship and connect it to the show.

"I don't mind that. I'm all for education," Perry says nobly. He sums up his own years in high school as "putting in my time."

But the rest of the stuff is grating on him.

"At one time it was very important to do a lot of publicity for the show -- when no one was watching. Now it would seem there are some people watching. I think we could slack off a little bit."

To say the producers and writers are grateful to their rapt teenage audience is an understatement. They are beholden to them. The show debuted last television season to dismal reviews, with ratings to match. But younger viewers discovered the show anyway and Fox cleverly moved up this season's premiere to the middle of July. (Tonight's episode is actually the show's 11th of the season.) While other network shows were sleeping, "Beverly Hills, 90210" was raking in the viewers. And they weren't all kids. Fox reports high viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds.

The show is built around twin teenagers Brenda and Brandon Walsh, who move with their loving, occasionally exasperated parents from Minneapolis to Beverly Hills when the father gets transferred by his accounting firm. Around the Walsh kids course a stream of friends who are dealing with the ups and downs of life in high school. And although they do talk on car phones, go to the beach and live in Spanish-style houses, they wrestle with the universal problems: friendships, ambitions, values and, of course, sex.

"Teenagers haven't been explored on television," says Rosin, who happens to have graduated from Beverly Hills High in 1970. (The show's creator, Darren Star, grew up in Potomac.) "They're there to be cool or very stylized. Part of the reason our show is successful -- and why Luke is successful -- is that we're taking teenagers seriously."

Perry may have snagged the best part as the character with edge. Dylan McKay is even a recovering alcoholic who slips from time to time.

And Dylan got the best (read most melodramatic) parents. His cold, ambitious father was recently sent off to prison for financial wrongdoing. And last week his mother returned to Beverly Hills from Hawaii. (She's played by Stephanie Beacham, formerly of another dysfunctional Aaron Spelling family, "The Colbys.")

Perry was made to order for his part. He's got the textbook James Dean look -- the cheekbones chiseled into a pretty face -- and a kind of cleaned-up, '90s-style Dean attitude. He wears jeans and a black T-shirt, eschews working out in pursuit of rippling muscles ("They'd make me take my shirt off," he guesses astutely), dumps on Los Angeles ("It's just too much; it's too big") and grumps about being compared to Dean. "I ain't got no control over that," he growls.

"It kind of {ticks} me off when people say, 'What's it like to be an overnight star?' and I'm like -- seems like all those years in New York weren't overnight."

After high school he fled his rural hometown of Fredericktown, Ohio, for Los Angeles and a career in acting. He knocked around L.A. for two years before heading to New York, where he lived for three years, spending one of them on the soap opera "Loving." It was good training, but he hated his boss. A couple of years ago he returned to Los Angeles.

To make ends meet during the lean years, he hawked jeans and candy bars in television commercials as well as worked in a doorknob factory and laid asphalt. "A nasty job," he says.

"People, when they see all of us on the show, and we're relatively young and things seem to be going well for us at the moment, they take it for granted it was just served up on a plate. And it wasn't. Everybody there has put in their time one way or another."

The route to "Beverly Hills, 90210" actually started when he read for the wrong role. A casting director called him in to read for the lead in the now-defunct "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" series -- "I wouldn't have done that show for anything," he insists now even though he needed the work. When he walked in she took one look at him and said uh-uh, he was all wrong. But they chatted anyway and several months later, when "Beverly Hills, 90210" was casting, she suggested the producers take a look at him.

The Dylan McKay character, explains Rosin, was conceived as "an alternative to our all-American Brandon Walsh. When you thought of a guy as dangerous, you thought of a guy in black leather who hangs around an auto shop. What about someone who incorporates those things but lives alone in a hotel suite a la Eloise and was as comfortable in Armani as in black leather and likes poetry -- he wasn't a dumb guy."

The first thing Perry was asked to read in the script included a conversation in French between his character and his world-traveling mother.

"He was the only one who knew French," Rosin recalled. "That impressed us right off. Here's a guy who's cool and handsome, and he's smart." That was followed by a battery of auditions and meetings with producers and network people who all had to sign off on this unknown actor. "When he met Aaron Spelling we had it whittled down to four to five actors," Rosin says. "Luke came in, he was a little nervous. He asked for a cigarette. I thought to myself, 'My God, this is Dylan.' Instead of being shy and deferential, you show your nervousness by being more demonstrative."

The writers initially coupled him tenderly with Brenda -- he was her First -- then broke them up ("It was really more Brenda's problems with the relationship," says Rosin) then, in the wake of the audience response to Luke Perry as a romantic figure, put them back together.

"I'd like to see him become environmentally active," says Perry of his character.

You can't be serious.

"Oh boy, is it a passe topic? I mean, think about it. The planet's dying!

"There're lots of things I'd want him to do that they'd never let me do. I believe that alcoholism stems from compulsive behavior. ... I find a lot of times people don't have just one addiction, they have several. That's one of the darker aspects of him I'd like to explore. I also wanted him to have a relationship with that very pretty girl we had on the show," he says, chuckling about a beautiful young black actress who made a recent guest appearance. "I did suggest that. It wasn't the route they wanted to go."

People who know Perry say he's 25 or so. But he's made a habit of being coy about his age. "Privacy -- we have so little left," he says unconvincingly. More likely, he and his other costars wish not to dispel the illusion of being high schoolers -- which, of course, none of them really is. (Gabrielle Carteris, who plays the ambitious high school editor, is 30.)

But playing a high schooler comes naturally, he says. "Basically I have to get through a maturing process to get to the age of 16. I'm serious. I'm like 12 years old. And I have to play like I'm a big kid."

Oh, he's just cutting up. "I think about playing him as a well-rounded character. If you start getting hung up on the fact that he is in his teen years then you've lost sight of what we're trying to do."

He can't, or won't, say why he became an actor, preferring a moody, brooding stance that his character might take. "I didn't pick it. It picked me. I just never gave anything else any serious consideration. It was just always sort of assumed this was what I would do. ... I loved television. 'Starsky and Hutch' was my show. 'SWAT.' Both Aaron Spelling shows. Loved 'em."

Stardom has not made him change his material lifestyle much, as far as those around him can tell. He still lives in a small rented house in Hollywood, which he shares with his pet Vietnamese potbellied pig, Jerry Lee. "I don't keep him. We sort of live together really. It's not like I own him or anything. He hangs out with me."

He drives a used Blazer that he just bought, and when he has some free time, he heads out to the desert on his motorcycle.

He says he doesn't have a girlfriend. "I tend to borrow other people's from time to time," he says with a tired snarl. "That's off the record. No, people will think I do that -- and I don't anymore."

"He's a very laid-back man," says actor Timothy Owen, who shared a cramped studio apartment with him in New York. "He doesn't need a lot of amenities to be happy."

Owen and Perry are featured in an upcoming small-budget movie from Cannon Films called "Terminal Bliss." The film's director, Jordan Alan, says that Perry has been trying to distance himself from the film, a dark look at adolescence. The character Perry plays in that film makes Dylan McKay look like a Mouseketeer.

Perry denies that he's bothered by the drastically different character. "As an actor you strive to show versatility," he says. "I could never have a problem with that." But he's clearly not happy with the finished product. "I went to do that movie under good intentions and I thought we had a great opportunity, and it was squandered out of weakness on the director's part."

Alan says he's hurt by Perry's criticism, pointing out that he lobbied producers to hire the actor and worked hard to prep him for his scenes. "Suddenly he's a new man -- now he can tell me I'm a bad director," Alan says.

Whether Perry likes it or not, the movie will open with his indirect help. Alan says Cannon plans to open it in Florida -- "that's where the mall thing went down," the director explains.

For now, Perry's primary concern is "Beverly Hills, 90210." "I love our show -- I can say that real honestly. If I wasn't on, I'd be watching -- if for nothing else than to look at the girls." And what are the girls like to work with? "Bitches -- hate 'em," he laughs. "I love 'em. I'll get gushy if I really get into it and tell you how much I like everybody."